In the moments before his free skate, Adam Rippon knew exactly what he was up against. Teenager Nathan Chen had made history by landing four quadruple jumps, vaulting him into second place in the men’s competition Sunday at the U.S. championships. Max Aaron, the leader after the short program, had skated well enough to stay on top.
None of that mattered to Rippon.
“It didn’t change what I wanted to do, and what I needed to do,” he said. “I was nervous, but I knew I was prepared, and I could do it.”
By simply doing what he does best, Rippon, 26, earned the U.S. championship he had chased for years. A free skate bursting with style and showmanship earned him 182.74 points, giving him a total of 270.75 and a slim margin of victory at Xcel Energy Center. Aaron finished second with 269.55, his score hurt by a planned triple salchow that turned into a double.
Chen’s spectacular quads lifted him to the bronze medal and berths on the U.S. teams for both the senior and junior world championships. They also left Rippon, his training partner, having to defend his lack of them. Rippon attempted one quad in his free skate and fell, though he cleanly landed eight triple jumps and received the day’s second-highest technical score behind Chen.
Almost as soon as he stepped off the podium, Rippon was peppered with questions about whether he could medal at the upcoming world championships without a solid quad. He understands its importance, he said, and he will keep working on it — but Sunday, he wanted only to enjoy a long-sought victory.
“Winning a national title was important to me,” said Rippon, a two-time U.S. silver medalist. “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I started skating.
“I wanted to show the best I could do today, and I’m 26. I think it says you should never give up on yourself. Just because you can’t do one element that your competitors can do more proficiently than you, it doesn’t mean you should hang up your skates and give it up.”
Rippon’s creative flair has made him a popular skater, and his performance Sunday to a Beatles medley won the day’s highest marks for artistry. After tumbling on a quad lutz — his opening jump — he understood he could not afford another mistake.
He sailed through the rest of the program, packed with dazzling spins and fancy footwork.
When it ended, he put his hands to his face in a gesture reflecting both relief and disbelief, and he said it was “surreal” when his score held up for the gold.
Chen, 16, originally planned to do three quads in his free skate. He felt so good, he said, that he added a fourth, and he landed each without a stumble. His only major flaw came when he fell on a triple axel midway through his program, skated to a Saint-Saens symphony.
Friday, Chen made history as the first skater to land two quads in a short program at the U.S. championships. He became the first to complete four in a free skate Sunday, which pushed his technical score to 100.24 — 7.08 points clear of his closest competitor.
“I’m really happy I was able to make that happen,” said Chen, whose performance at nationals amplified the buzz about his potential. “This is an awesome step for me as a senior skater.
“After the short program, I figured I was totally capable of doing it. And I was ready to do it, so I decided I could just go for it. I had nothing really to lose at that point.”
Aaron skated immediately after Chen and just before Rippon. An outstanding jumper who landed two quads Sunday, his emphasis this season has been on improving his expression on the ice. Though he could not hold his short-program lead, he said his performance to music from “Black Swan” was “a step in the right direction” despite minor flaws.
Rippon, Aaron and Chen will go on to the world championships March 28-April 3 in Boston, where they will face such quad gods as defending champ Javier Hernandez of Spain and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Rippon defended the importance of other elements, noting that great skating is not one-dimensional.
Sunday’s skate, he said, reminded him that he is among the best performers in the world — which doesn’t mean he will stop working on the quad.
“If you think I’m going to go home and think, ‘There are no more quads, we’re just going to do triples,’ that’s not what happens,” Rippon said. “I definitely start training tomorrow. My coach is going to drill me into the ground, so I’ll have the best quads of my life by the time we get to Boston.”